Beauty in science: a Kantian approach to aesthetics in the study of nature

Many of the greatest natural philosophers and scientists have attached central importance to the aesthetic merit of their proofs and theories. Key figures, ranging in physics from Kepler to Dirac, Einstein, Weyl and Heisenberg, and in biology from Darwin to Watson and Crick, were explicitly concerned with the beauty and elegance of their scientific claims. Some even went so far as to regard satisfaction of aesthetic criteria as indicative of the truth of scientific theories.

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Johannes Kepler’s diagrams of planetary motion, suggesting the simplicity of the Copernican over the Ptolemaic and Tychonic forms (from Kepler, Astronomia nova, 1609).

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A reconstruction of Watson and Crick’s double helix model of DNA (exhibited in the Science Museum) - Rosalind Franklin reportedly regarded the model as too pretty not to be true.

  • How should we understand judgements about the beauty of scientific theories?
  • What bearing do such judgements have on the truth of these theories?
  • What, more generally, is the relationship between aesthetic judgment and scientific knowledge?

In the course of my Leverhulme Research Fellowship, I aim to give answers to these questions that provide an alternative to both traditional metaphysical accounts that link truth and beauty, and to prevailing contemporary conceptions that construe this link as purely contingent.

Treatments of the relation between beauty and truth have ranged between two extremes: on the one side, the Pythagorean or Platonist conception of beauty as truth; on the other, the subjectivist view that beauty has, at best, a purely contingent connection to the success of a theory. While the first account faces the apparently insuperable problem of justifying a metaphysical connection between beauty and truth, the second is left in the awkward position of having to reject as irrational a large part of how scientists themselves conceive of their work. In light of these difficulties, intermediary positions have stressed that aesthetics performs a methodological, or heuristic, function in science. Yet, this methodological conception, too, raises difficult questions. For why should we expect aesthetic considerations to be a guide to successful theory? How can we explain this guiding property without returning to an account of the relation between beauty and truth as either an inaccessible metaphysical necessity or an inexplicable contingent correlation?

I seek to construe aesthetic considerations as displaying an intrinsic relation to the aims of science without incurring untenable metaphysical commitments. Kant's conception of regulative principles provides the starting point for this enquiry by showing that the study of nature is necessarily guided by certain conditions of human understanding.

I investigate the idea that we aesthetically appreciate such qualities as the unity, simplicity and symmetry of a theory because theories that display these properties make us aware of an apparent fit between natural phenomena and our capacity to understand such phenomena. I suggest that the experience of beauty in science presents an emotional response to our awareness that a theory helps us gain understanding. I further examine the idea that focussing on the aesthetic features of a theory provides a heuristic guide for science. I propose that in seeking beauty we aim at theories that furnish understanding of the world.

Dr Angela Breitenbach
University of Cambridge